Evolving Towards the Law Classroom of Tomorrow: My Introduction

May 25th, 2011

In my efforts to liveblog my article on the future of legal education, I paste below the working introduction of the article. This summarizes a number of posts I have made over the last few months, and sets the stage for what I think is going to be a real kick-ass article. As always, comments or feedback are appreciated.

The legal profession, as we know it today, stands at a crossroads. The cost of legal education is spiraling upwards. Many new attorneys, graduating with crushing debt, are unable to find employment. Those who can find employment are unprepared to work as an attorney, as their education focused too heavily on theory, and not enough on practice. 

Against this backdrop, the nature of the legal profession is changing. The era of profligate big law is over. Clients in a tight economy seek to exercise more control over legal costs, and are cutting down on billable hours. Many jobs that were once performed by new associates are being outsourced to low-paid contract attorneys, second-tier associates, overseas, and even to advanced legal information systems.

All of these trends share a common theme–the legal profession will have to transform. An under-appreciated, yet vital component in this transformation, is the law school classroom. Long-standing approaches to legal education, based on the legal profession of the past, will fall short in preparing the lawyer of tomorrow to compete in the global legal information market. In this article I aim to weave together these developing themes, identify the gap between theory and reality in academia, and provide a guide to the law classroom of tomorrow.

First, I will offer a sober assessment of the current state of the legal marketplace, and chart its evolution in the short-term, and not-to-distant, future. This change, presaged by the demise of big law, will culminate in the transition from a time-consuming, customized labor-intensive legal market to an on-demand, commoditized information-based legal service. Many legal services that are created today through individualized, customized efforts, will be replaced by information service products that can be downloaded on demand, like a commodity. Attorneys, ever-resistant to change and competition, must be introspective, take cognizance of the changes happening around us, and adjust for these pending changes.

Second, I will reflect on the current state of legal education, and the gaps between theory, and reality. The noted 2007 Carnegie Foundation report, and numerous other similar studies, found that law schools are not preparing students for practice. This gap will be compounded as the legal profession continues to evolve. Lawyers in this future information economy will need to develop certain abilities, beyond the traditional skills taught in law school: comfort with using technology; ability to develop information-based services; ability to handle and grasp the flow, and often inundation, of information; proficiency with electronic communications; develop reliance on commoditized legal services; use of legal simulators to develop practical aspects of law; and others. The law school classroom of tomorrow will need to bridge the gap between theory and practice, and at the same time, prepare students for the evolving legal information economy of tomorrow.

Third, I provide a guide of how the law school classroom of tomorrow will operate, focusing on thee eras: today, the not-so-distant future (2011-2030), and the future (2030-2070). Today’s generation’s relationship with technology is evolving, creating a tension with longstanding classroom pedagogy. The classroom of tomorrow will not fight technology; it will embrace it. Christopher Columbus Langdells’ Socratic Method serviced its purpose for well over a century; the legal profession of tomorrow demands a fresh take on learning.

The classroom experience will not be bound to the four corners of the classroom during class hours, but will constitute an immersive experience. The professor, acting more as an aggregator than a Langdellian Oracle, will integrate collaborative social media, practical legal simulators, distant learning-based telepresence, information-based forecasting, and development of interactive legal services, with traditional legal topics. This approach will narrow the gap between practice and theory, prepare attorneys for the legal environment of tomorrow, and at the same time make law school a more affordable, accessible, experience.

Fourth, I will reply, in advance, to a number of anticipated criticisms of this article. No doubt many will oppose my proposals. One crowd, dismissive of my lack of experience–both academic and practical–will find me unqualified to make these recommendations–who is this kid to tell me, an experienced attorney, what to do! A second crowd will find my predictions implausible, impractical, and in the realm of science fiction–downloading legal services from the web instead of paying billable hours, impossible! A third crowd, afraid of changes in the legal profession that will render their skills obsolete, will resist this change, claiming that the cartelized legal profession is unique, and immune from changes in the broader global economy–legal services are just too personalized, a computer can never replace me (or so I hope!). A fourth crowd, antagonistic to the “Twitterization” of the legal education, and the attendant decrease in personal interaction, will oppose efforts to inject technology into the classroom–why would I encourage my students, who are already brain-dead facebook addicts, to use technology while I’m try to lecture.

Although I address each criticism in turn, all of these criticisms are quite valid. In fact, I don’t claim to have a crystal ball, nor do I a magic pill to remedy all of the issues confronting the legal profession and legal education. Rather, I provide something these four crowds may be lacking; a fresh prospective, a solid grasp of technological development, and an insight, bolstered by extensive research and reflection, into future trends in society in our society. From this vantage point, I aim to identify the current state of the law, where it is going, and how we can help our new attorneys get there. Even if my predictions are wrong (perhaps the predictions will come to fruition sooner or later than I think), or my proscriptions are misplaced (certainly with hindsight, more efficient steps may be deemed appropriate), this article offers an opportunity for introspection, and a chance to reconsider how best to train the lawyers of tomorrow, today.